Religion, Nationality or Race? While many Jews and non-Jews consider the Jews to be more of an ethnic group than a religion in America, most of the nation’s 7,000,000 or so Jews have had at least a nominal connection to Jewish religious practices. The Jewish religion is ancient. The Jewish people have suffered through thousands of years of cruel persecution and oppression. America has served as a great refuge for Jews, who quickly became part of American life. American Jews are a close second to Episcopalians in average personal income and education level. The largest proportion of Jews are concentrated in the Northeast and in the Miami and Los Angeles areas. More Jews live in the United States than in any other country, including Israel.
No Messiah Yet. Jews share many concepts with Christianity, yet differ in that they believe the Messiah has not yet come. Jews believe in the immortality of the soul but not in Christian concepts of heaven and hell. Rabbis, meaning teachers, are leaders in the Jewish faith, but any knowledgeable Jewish layman may lead a Jewish service. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is kept on a scroll and read aloud every Sabbath (Saturday) during worship. These scrolls are sacred to Jews. The Talmud is a later compendium of Jewish custom and law that is studied by specialists. The Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) is a special day in Religious Jewish ritual. Jewish families will get together Friday nights for special meals on special dishes. They may not work, travel, write, do business or carry money on the Sabbath. Stores run by orthodox or religious Jews are often closed on Saturdays, but open on Sundays. In Jewish tradition, the family home is a sacred place. It is customary for religious Jewish men to cover their heads with a skullcap (Yarmulke) either all the time or when they pray. Extremely orthodox or Hasidic Jews also wear elaborate costumes, usually in black, that tend to set them apart from other Americans.
Kosher Dietary Laws. Very religious Jews also observe ancient “Kosher” dietary laws: no pork or horse meat, no shellfish, no mixing of meat and dairy products. Kosher food and meats must be prepared according to certain rituals under rabbinic supervision. In neighborhoods with large Jewish populations kosher foods are available in special stores, and even in special sections of supermarkets.
Divisions Within Judaism. There are three major division of American Jews. Orthodox Jews are the most traditional and observe all the customs strictly, including the separation of men and women in the synagogue. They conduct their services in Hebrew. Conservative Jews follow many of the same customs but conduct services in English. Reform Jews do not follow dietary laws, mix the sexes in worship and dress just like everyone else. They follow Jewish tradition with modern forms. Nearly all Jews even atheists follow the Jewish custom of ritually circumcising their newborn males. Nearly all Jewish males and many Jewish females undergo a coming of age ceremony at 13 called a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah.
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